Scotland's drug czar (or "tsar," as the Scots like it) has unleashed a week of furious debate by declaring that the war on drugs is lost and can never be won. The remarks by Tom Wood, chairman of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams, are only the latest in a series of similar declarations coming from Scottish politicians and law enforcement figures as the nation attempts to confront its intractable affair with illicit drugs. Despite decades of drug war, Scotland has some of the highest drug use rates in Europe and more than 50,000 heroin addicts.
"I spent much of my police career fighting the drugs war and there was no one keener than me to fight it," Woods said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday. "But latterly I have become more and more convinced that it was never a war we could win. We can never as a nation be drug-free. No nation can, so we must accept that. So the message has to be more sophisticated than 'just say no,' because that simple message doesn't work," said the man charged with advising the Scottish Executive on future drug policy. "For young people who have already said 'yes,' who live in families and communities where everybody says 'yes,' we have to recognize that the battle is long lost."
Wood said he was not advocating decriminalization or legalization of drugs, but a fundamental shift of priorities. "Throughout the last three decades, enforcement has been given top priority, followed by treatment and rehabilitation, with education and deterrence a distant third. In order to make a difference in the long term, education and deterrence have to go to the top of the pile. We have to have the courage and commitment to admit that we have not tackled the problem successfully in the past. It's about our priorities and our thinking," said Wood. "Clearly, at some stage, there could be resource implications, but the first thing we have to do is realize we can't win any battles by continuing to put enforcement first."
Scotland's main drug fighters, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), unsurprisingly differed with Wood's analysis. "I strongly disagree when he says that the war on drugs in Scotland is lost," said SCDEA head Graeme Pearson. "The Scottish Executive Drug Action Plan acknowledged that tackling drug misuse is a complex problem, demanding many responses. It is explicit within the strategy that to effectively tackle drug misuse, the various pillars of the plan cannot operate in isolation."
While Pearson defended current policies, anti-drug crusader Alistair Ramsey, former director of Scotland Against Drugs, was fulminating against too much emphasis on treatment. "We must never lose sight of the fact that enforcement of drug law is a very powerful prevention for many people and, if anything, drug law should be made more robust," he told the newspaper. "The current fixation with treatment and rehabilitation on behalf of the Executive has really got to stop."
Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell joined the attack: "I accept Wood's sincerity, but this is a very dangerous message to go out. I would never say that we have lost the war on drugs. Things are dire, but we should never throw up the white flag," she said.
On Monday, Scottish Health Minister joined the fray, comparing eliminating drug use to providing healthy school lunches. "If you'd said Scotland's kids would be eating more healthily in school, they would have said it couldn't be done, so I'm very positive about these matters. We need to be positive and there's different ways of doing this. We're working hard to make sure we're successful and I do believe we can win that war, but it's going to need a lot of hard effort," he insisted.
Wood's view did gain backing from groups like the Scottish Drugs Forum and the drug prevention and advice group Crew 2000. "I think Tom Wood is right. This is something our organization has been arguing for for a long time and it is good to see this is now coming into the mainstream," said Crew 2000 manager John Arthur.
Wood was unbowed Monday as he took pains to praise Scottish police. "The Scottish drugs enforcement agency is one of the best in Europe" he said. "However, we have to accept that police activity has not reduced supply. It has not made a difference to the price or the purity."